COLOMBO: The Jamaat al-Tawhid al-Watania group, an obscure Islamic radical group, has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks carried out in Sri Lanka on Sunday, the Al-Arabiya TV channel said on Twitter without providing any details about the group, the Russian agency Tass reported.

Earlier, Rita Katz, Director of the respected terror monitoring SITE Intelligence Group, said that Islamic State (IS) supporters have been applauding the attacks on social media, and “celebrating the casualties”.

Katz said that the IS media channels are ‘posting rampantly’ about the blasts and praying ‘may Allah accept’ the suicide bombers.

She claimed that the online praise indicated that the group may be preparing to take responsibility for the attacks.

Homegrown Group

However, in Sri Lanka itself, the government and even the leaders of the Muslims, are saying that the suspects are a new Sri Lankan outfit called ‘National Tawheed Jamaat” headed by Moulavi Mohammad Zahran of Kathankudy, Sri Lanka’s only 100% Muslim town which is located in the Eastern province.

According to Hilmy Ahamad a leader of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL), the National Tawheed Jamaat headed by Moulavi Zahran had broken away from the older Sri Lanka Tawheed Jamaat after the December 26, 2018 incidents in Mawanella in Kandy district in which Muslim radicals had desecrated scores of Buddha’s Statues.

Ahamad said that Zahran fled to various towns in Sri Lanka and at one stage crossed over to India. Some said he was living in Chennai and others said he was in Bengaluru. He has been absconding since then.

Moulavi Zahran was a teacher in a Kathankudy Madrassah. He was a powerful speaker and therefore sought after. Said Hilmy Ahamad: “ Parents were happy that their children were learning the Quran. But they did not know that Zahran was teaching radicalism.”

Zahran disconnected himself from the Sri Lanka Tawheed Jamaat and also all other Jamaats, including the Tamil Nadu Tawheed Jammat, and became a lone wolf in hiding. His name suddenly emerged after the Easter Sunday blasts in Colombo. The Lankan government had publicly named him as the mastermind of the carnage. One report said that he was the suicide bomber who blew himself up in Shangri-La hotel in Colombo.

In order to distance themselves from Zahran and the National Tawheed Jamaat, the Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu Tawheed Jamaats issued statements saying that they had nothing to do with Zahran and his organization.

Intelligence Was There

According to Lankan government minister Harin Fernando, Indian intelligence service had got wind of Zahran’s plans to stage suicide attacks on posh hotels, churches and other targets, including the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka.

This was shared with the Lankan authorities on April 4 and 11. A Deputy Inspector General of Police had sent up a memo to the top brass in the Lankan Establishment about the intelligence input and sought follow up measures.

The Muslim Council Sri Lanka headed by N.M.Ameen and Hilmy Ahamad had also warned about the hate speech and radicalism of Zaharan after the desecration of Buddha statues in Mawanella in December 2018. Ahamad had informed the authorities about radical elements in his community three years earlier, supported by documents.

“We had warned about Zahran as part of our complaint about hate speech by Buddhist and Islamic leaders and produced evidence including videos of Zahran’s speech. But no action was taken perhaps because there was insufficient evidence,” Hilmy Ahamad said.

Dr. Ranga Jayasuriya, a security expert in a Colombo-based think tank, writing in Daily Mirror on April 23, recalled that after the desecration of Buddha’s statues in Mawanella on December 26, 2018, interrogation of seven suspects had led to an 80 acre-coconut farm in Wanathawillu in Puttalam district not far from Colombo,where a large cache of explosives was found.

“The cache included 100kg of C4 explosives, 75 kg ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride and 6 cans of 20 liter nitrate acid, which investigators believed were meant to make explosive devices. Four individuals were arrested. However, the key suspects, who were not in the plantation at the time, have remained at large.”

An un-named Muslim leader had offered to arrange the surrender of an extremist preacher who was in hiding in return for an assurance, Dr.Jayasuriya wrote.

It now transpires that the extremist preacher was Moulavi Zaharan.

Minister Kabir Hashim has now told a media conference that one or two persons who were arrested at Wanathawillu were released due to political pressure. One of the released suspects is now being identified as an Easter Sunday suicide bomber, Dr.Jayasuriya notes. says.

The Daily Mirror article reveals that in mid-March 2019, Mohamed Razak Taslim (37), the Coordinating secretary of Highways and Investment Promotions Minister Kabir Hashim was shot at a point blank range at his residence in Dhanagama Mawatha, Kandy, by two assailants. Taslim had helped the CID investigations to nab the Mawanella attackers.

As in the previous cases, in this case too, there was no follow up action.

Analyzing the reasons for inaction, Dr.Jayasuriya says that for many in political circles and among Muslim community leaders, the prospect of an armed and violent Islamic extremism has been a bitter pill to swallow. Their immediate concerns have led to the threats being downplayed or ignored. But this has been at the expense of lives of many hundreds of Sri Lankans, he points out.

However, the involvement of Moulvi Zahran’s brother Rilwan came to light. Mohammed Milhan has been found to be active on social media, instigating followers against other faiths.

The Easter Sunday blasts are noteworthy for another point of view. In Sri Lanka, suicide bombings are known to be an exclusive preserve of the Tamil Tigers. But the Easter Sunday bombings show that even Lankan Islamic extremists are capable of indulging in this deadly act.

The Government Analyst has reportedly confirmed that seven suicide bombers had taken part in the attacks on Easter Sunday. Two were deployed in Shangri-La hotel and one each in other locations. And all the suicide bombers are reportedly Sri Lankans.

Foreign Involvement

As Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, serial blasts on this wide and destructive scale could not have been arranged by a newly founded small group and that a foreign involvement and expertise are a distinct possibility.

The government is saying that investigations would be conducted into this aspect. But a renowned Sri Lankan security expert, Dr.Rohan Gunaratna, Professor of Security Studies at the Rajaratnam Center for International Studies at Nanyang University in Singapore, has said that the attacks have the signature of the Islamic State (IS). The IS had conducted it with the help of its “Sri Lankan branch”. The National Tawheed Jamaat could well be a branch of the Islamic State.

According to Dr.Gunaratna the choice of targets is a give-away. The targets were top-end hotels frequented by White foreigners and Christian churches . These indicate that the attackers had animosity towards the West and its religion Christianity.

“Remember, it was a West-led coalition which ousted the IS from Iraq and Syria, and Christianity is seen as the West’s ideological under pinning,” Dr.Gunaratna said.

However, while not ruling out IS’ involvement, locals add other theories such as a Buddhist cum nationalist plot to overthrow the present pro-West regime of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe by showing it as being too weak and ineffective to protect the country. The other theory is that Mossad or the agency of another anti-Muslim country could have carried out the strikes to stir up Buddhist antagonism towards Muslims.

Lankan Muslims Abhor Terror

Members of other communities in Sri Lanka complain that the enlightened sections of the Muslim community are not doing anything to stem encroaching fundamentalism and radicalism in their community, and are in a perpetual mode of denial, But Muslim leaders say that they are doing their bit and deny that the Muslims at large are supporters of violence.

“Radical groups like the National Tawheed Jamaat are very very distant from the vast majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka,” says Hilmy Ahamad.

N.M.Ameen, President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said in a statement that the Easter Sunday attacks were meant to create divides between religious and ethnic groups.

“This is a deliberate attempt to create panic and disrupt life,” Ameen said while appealing to Muslims to provide any assistance that the government might require in conducting the on-going probe to find the perpetrators of the “heinous crime” and bring them to justice.